In Florida, Atlantic City, and Las Vegas, T.J. Shulman has won almost a half-million dollars in poker tournaments. One day this past August, the talkative Boca Raton pro sat beneath a wall of TVs that brightened Hialeah Park's poker room.
He saw dollar signs in the eyes of the players around him as he prepared for the largest Texas hold'em tournament in the card room's history. After all, this is his business, and these are the kinds of opportunities he pursues.
About 1,000 entrants are in the running for $200,000 in guaranteed prize money. This could be good, Shulman thought. Only a few dozen of the players presented serious competition. But as he advanced, Shulman saw things he had never before experienced. Players chatted with management, then sat where they wanted. Managers handled cash without receipts. And the listed payouts seemed too low for the entry fee.
"I told a Hialeah supervisor, 'You're missing $48,000 from the prize
Ticked off, Shulman and three others complained to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, which investigated and recently confirmed what the players had suspected: Hialeah's poker managers ran a dirty tournament. The state found myriad problems, from lack of receipts to improper video surveillance to supervisors pocketing
"They said they'd take the money to the cashier later," Shulman says. "They did every possible dance there was."
More recently, poker room manager Nelson Costa resigned, and three of his assistants were fired. The state is expected soon to hand down a six-figure fine. Though no criminal charges are foreseen, it is a distinct black eye for one of the region's most storied facilities.
Contacted by New Times, Hialeah Park President John Brunetti declined to comment.
Hialeah is the most lucrative of Miami-Dade's four poker rooms, making more than $8 million per year. Almost every afternoon and night, 100 or so players are scattered at tables, intently studying their opponents and every flop, turn, and river.
Staff allowed players to compete for free, with a wink-wink that the managers would get something back.
This is the same Hialeah Park that was opened in 1921, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has appeared in at least three major movies, including Let It Ride with Richard Dreyfuss back in 1989. In its long history, it's attracted Sir Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra as well as Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Nixon and filming for The Godfather: Part II.
The park closed in 2001, then joined the Miami-Dade casino game late, gaining state approval in 2008, after three other racetrack casinos had been voted in by Miami-Dade residents in 2006. It reopened in 2009 for slots, poker, and quarter-horse racing.
The poker room is located on the remodeled second floor of the casino, with a veranda for players seeking a quick smoke. It also has the best food and beverage service in South Florida poker — and is known for nontournament "cash" games that attract macho guys who love to bluff and hate being bullied.
Players from many other South Florida card rooms descended on the property the last week of August. Hialeah offered $200,000 in prizes, enough to attract good players but short of the $1 million occasionally offered at the Isle Casino Racing in Pompano Beach and the Seminole Hard Rock. That meant the elite pros stayed away.
Players could enter August 26-29 for $250. They received 15,000 chips to start, an additional 5,000 chips if they paid $20 toward a dealers' tip
Those with chips left then gathered on August 30 to play for a top prize of about $60,000. That's when Shulman says the math started to not add up. Shulman, who most recently won a tournament this size in May 2013 ($109,500 in Wilmington, Delaware), recognized that players were friends of managers. He heard accusations — never substantiated by the state — that staff allowed players to compete for free, with a wink-wink that the managers would get something back if the player fared well.
Shulman says another player related the following story: "They were talking in Spanish, and the guy understood another player saying he was getting 20 percent of the winnings and giving the staff 80 percent," Shulman says.
After Shulman and the others, whose names aren't listed in state documents, complained, the state began investigating almost immediately. Many employees were interviewed offsite, at the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering's regional office in Fort Lauderdale.
In a seven-page administrative complaint issued this past December 29, the state determined that 13 players who had won money in the tournament did not receive required receipts. Investigators also found that required casino surveillance video did not properly cover parts of the poker room, including areas where cash was handled, and that money was kept in Costa's office rather than a cashier's cage or vault. They also dug deeper into daily nontournament operations and had problems with that too.
The state also says Hialeah didn't keep a ledger of jackpot debits and credits. There are no criminal allegations in the complaint, but the report indicates it is unclear whether every dollar that went into the jackpot fund got paid out.
Not mentioned by name in the report is the manager, Costa, who had run nearby rival Casino Miami Jai-Alai before joining Hialeah in August 2013. He brought many of his managers and staff with him, including attractive women, who smile and joke as they pitch cards to the players.
His three assistants were terminated almost immediately after the tournament. Costa resigned a couple of months later.
His ability to bring in players made Hialeah lucrative, but even though he and the others are gone, poker dealers say there's a lasting effect: Regular players aren't coming in as frequently, and the tips aren't as generous. The trust still needs to be rebuilt, says a dealer who didn't want to be named. And business is running in the $600,000 range per month, rather than the $700,000 range — as it had previously.
But why did such irregularities go unnoticed by managers and regular state inspectors? Well, poker is a minor part of a casino, and tournament poker is a small part of poker at Hialeah. In November, the casino took in $5.1 million via slots and $635,920 in poker, with tournament poker accounting for $69,797 of that. So tournament poker did 1.3 percent of the slot machine revenues.
The casino's director of compliance, Angel Garcia, is now doing double duty as the poker room manager, and assistant managers have been hired from Atlantic City and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Hialeah has toned down its poker offerings. Another big tournament ran January 26-31 but with only a $100 buy-in and a prize pool of only $75,000. Those are close to the everyday numbers at some other South Florida poker rooms.
Sergio Morejon, a semiregular who calls Hialeah his favorite place to play, says the regulars simply hadn't paid as much attention to the irregularities until the state stepped in. "There was nothing in the big tournament that I hadn't seen before, but nobody had ever said anything," he says. "The difference was that this tournament drew players from outside, and they all spoke up."
Follow Nick Sortal @NickSortal, SouthFloridaGambling.com